Member Spotlight Interview
Samaa Haridi, Partner at Hogan Lovells
Congratulations on being our inaugural spotlight member; we are very, very excited to have you be part of this initiative. I wanted to start off by asking about your background. Based on your biography, it seems like you have lived in several different countries. How do you think that shaped your outlook and career path?
Thank you very much for having me, it is an honor and a pleasure to participate in this with you. My background is Egyptian. Both of my parents were born and raised in Egypt. I, however, was born in Switzerland, and grew up, as you mentioned, in a number of countries, which include Switzerland, Belgium, Morocco, Senegal, France, and of course Egypt. That is a function of my father’s profession, which required him to travel. Looking back at it now, after having had a number of years of distance from that period of my life, I realize how lucky I was to have the chance to grow up in so many different cultures. In some instances, the cultural and linguistic differences between the various countries I lived in was quite stark and the adaptation process from one country to the next was abrupt. Frankly, I was not enjoying it as a child. Looking back at it though, I feel so grateful that I had the opportunity to be exposed to so many different environments, and I think it has played an immense role in how I was shaped as an adult, and more importantly, my capacity to adapt, which has helped a lot in my career and also in my personal life.
I can only imagine. Do you think there was anything from your background that specifically drew you to a career in the legal field?
Actually, not really. The story of how I became a lawyer is quite peculiar. I can’t suggest that I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer, that’s not at all the case. When I was finishing up high school at the French school in Cairo, I really wanted to continue my university studies in the French language. I have always been very attached to the French culture and heritage. But at the time, there were no available options in Cairo to go to college and study anything in French. It was all in English or Arabic. I was destined to go to the American University in Cairo, which is where many students in Cairo with a bit of an international education attended. But fortuitously, the year I graduated high school, the Sorbonne University decided to open a branch in Cairo that would permit students to study law in French, in Cairo, and I immediately jumped on it- not because it was law, but because it was just an opportunity to get a Sorbonne degree in French. It could have been anything- I would have gone. That’s why I say it’s a peculiar path to how I became a lawyer. And so that’s what led me to go to law school.
It’s interesting how often times, one path leads to another, and we don’t realize where life is going to take us. And so when you were in law school, was there anyone or any experience that had a very significant impact upon you?
The episode that led me to go to law school actually ties into the point about any person or experience having a significant impact. When I found out about the Sorbonne opening in Cairo, I went to seek further details, and I met with a man who- to this day - is my mentor. He was a very young French professor, who was sent by the Sorbonne as one of the people to be in charge of Sorbonne Cairo. I sat down with him, and in a matter of twenty minutes, he managed to completely convince me that this was a great opportunity for me and that I should go for it, and accordingly - I went for it. And it was largely this individual, Mr. Francois-Xavier Lucas, who convinced me that I should try this path - and boy was he right. He then became my professor in that program, and he truly is the person to whom I owe what I have become today. He guided me, he mentored me, he helped me, he sat numerous hours with me in Cairo, and it is thanks to him and his support that I was able to succeed. Eventually, there were not enough students who graduated from the Sorbonne in Cairo to justify continuing it. I graduated first in the class, and thanks to him, I obtained a scholarship from the French government to pursue my studies at the Sorbonne in France. And incidentally, he is actually here in New York teaching at Columbia Law School on a one-year exchange fellowship now.
That seems like a very fortunate experience, and a very fortunate mentor. Relatedly, was there ever a specific point during the time you were doing your studies at Sorbonne or during your LLM studies or otherwise, where you realized you wanted to enter a big law firm or private practice?
Sure. With every passing year, I gained clarity on the area of law that interested me most. In France, you go to law school right after high school. So I was 17 years when I started law school, and I studied overall for a period of 6 years. With each passing year I became more and more interested in the field of international arbitration. And it really cemented during my fifth year, during which time I was very fortunate to attend one of the famous international arbitration programs in Paris, under the leadership of someone by the name of Professor Paul Lagarde. That program was very geared towards international arbitration. During this time, I realized this is what I want to do. Then came the realization that I would most likely practice international arbitration as a counsel at a large law firm.
For our law student membership, do you have advice on specific types of programs or opportunities that you think would help law students gain exposure in their interested practice areas?
I would say this is very much a factual question, depending on what every person is interested in. I’m very active in the recruiting efforts of my firm, Hogan Lovells, so I meet students very often. When they ask me this question, my response is framed on what that student’s interests are. When I have a student say they are really interested in international arbitration, and ask what classes to take, I often suggest they take conflict of laws. A lot of what we do is intuitive, but some aspects of our practice are not intuitive, and I would put conflict of laws in that category. So, I would say, as much as possible (because it’s hard to know what you want to practice at the stage of being a student), try to get an understanding of your areas of interest and then focus on taking classes that are relevant to those interests. The other thing I would say is that it’s important to keep an open mind. It’s important to realize when you’re starting your career that there are so many possibilities, and that your mind may change, you might find new interests. And sometimes, the opportunity to do what you want to do is not going to present itself.
Do you recall any experiences where this happened to you?
I wanted to practice international arbitration – I didn’t get to do that when I started my career. It’s a very small competitive field. I applied all over the country, and think of my profile- French educated Egyptian law student with an LLM. At the time, it was not that easy for an LLM to find a job in the US. I was offered a position as a litigation associate at a firm in Los Angeles. For a period of about three years, all I did was U.S. domestic litigation. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to do that – I learned so much from that experience. I learned skills that I would not have learned if I had started immediately practicing in international arbitration. And all I can think of is thank God for the people who trusted me and believed in me at that firm and gave me a job. So, I’m looking at this not from the perspective of “I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do.” Rather, I’m grateful. But then I was also focused. I knew I wanted to do international arbitration. I eventually had to move firms, because my firm did not offer international arbitration. But my point is that, you can know what you want, and you can get to where you want sometimes by taking a circular route, and that circular route might bring a lot of benefits that you might not realize.
Were there any specific opportunities when you were doing domestic litigation that you sought to put you in a better position to transition into international arbitration, given how niche of a practice area it is?
Because the learning curve was very steep for me having not been educated substantially in the U.S., the first thing I focused on was being a good litigator. It would have been disingenuous of me to do anything else. I had the job; I had to prove myself at that job. So no – for my first few years, I really had to learn and do well, and impress the people who believed in me and hired me. So I focused on being the best that I could be in what I was hired to do. After two and a half years, I had gained a lot of exposure and appreciation by my colleagues. I had done depositions and oral hearings. After I started getting the hang of what I was doing, I then decided to refocus myself again on pursuing my dream in international arbitration. I asked to be transferred to the New York office of my firm. When I came to New York, I started speaking to partners who were pursuing this type of work. I became active in all sorts of organizations and bar associations. I tried getting speaking engagements and I published. I worked really hard to find a way to catch up, because those few years when I wasn’t in that field- I had to somehow make up, and I did. It was a lot of effort, both internally and externally. It’s internal in terms of exposing yourself, making sure the partners doing that type of work know you, think of you, and it’s external because you want the community at large to know you.
Could you elaborate further on the distinction between internal and external work. Also, when you were in the field of international arbitration, being a woman of color, how difficult was it to prove yourself in what many would say is a male dominated culture?
For the first several years of my career, particularly when I was an associate, I did everything that I could to focus on just doing a good job, and to focus on succeeding both internally and externally. Internally, perhaps is easier to grasp- you do good work. You follow up, you’re an integral member of the team, and you work hard to be indispensable in any matter that you work on. In addition to that, not to be neglected – there is an element of being likable; being present, being a team member, having a personality. At first I didn’t think it would be a good idea to joke, but it took me a while to realize that it’s okay to be yourself, and to own your culture and your identity. Those are things that did not come to me naturally, especially because in all of the environments that I worked, I was usually the only Arab person, only Muslim lawyer, one of few women on teams, especially the more senior I got. So I just worked really hard to do well, and to be liked. I never allowed myself to believe I was at a disadvantage because of my origin or my religion or my background – even if it were true, I didn’t want to be someone who is focusing on the negativity. Sometimes, if you look in that direction, you’re setting yourself back. I truly believe if you work hard, and you believe in yourself, and you’re a good person, you will succeed. And I have been fortunate enough to work in various firms, including the one where I am today, where I felt that those qualities are rewarded regardless of your background. Yes – it is harder when you’re a minority, and it’s hard to have certain conversations about a religious holiday or cultural event that no one around me can relate to, but I don’t let that stand in the way of my ability to succeed.
That seems like a very positive attitude. Can I also ask, what do you feel are the most challenging aspects of your work and also the most rewarding
As far as the most challenging aspects in the practice of international arbitration, it is being ready constantly to work with clients and witnesses and opposing parties that are from a new different culture, and to try to understand it and work with it. It is challenging, but is also thrilling. And it is the reason why I do what I do; it’s tough but I love it. It literally keeps me on my toes. For instance, right now, I’m working with Japanese clients. The approach to contentious proceedings in the Japanese culture is quite different. Understanding their culture that is not as confrontational and aggressive, but still working with them to be in a position of defending their interests forcefully are the type of dynamics I find very interesting and challenging. Relatedly, having to learn a new industry depending on the case can also be challenging. You have to learn very complex disputes – I could be doing a mining case on one day and a construction case the next day. You do use experts, but you’re also expected to understand the underlying industry in what you’re doing. There is of course also a personal side as well— the work life balance. I have two children, who are now seven and ten – and it hasn’t always been easy to juggle being a partner at a law firm and being a mother to two young children in NYC with a fulltime working husband, who is also a lawyer. I find that adopting a flexible approach and being where you’re needed most at all times works for me. I need to have the flexibility to decide where I’m needed most and to make the decision accordingly, as to whether I’m going to work late or if I’m going to go home and see my children before they go to bed. I certainly wish I could spend more time with my children, but by adopting this system, I have the ability to be with my children when I’m needed; I rarely miss important events. This has worked for me.
That goes to back what you were saying about gaining that flexibility from your previous childhood. I also wanted to ask you a few questions about MuBANY before we leave. To start, how long have you been a member of MuBANY?
As long as I can remember. I came to New York in 2003. I don’t remember how I learned of MuBANY, but I did some digging around, and I thought, wow this is a fantastic group, especially coming from LA, and also coming shortly after September 11. In LA, I was a litigation associate when September 11th happened. One of the associates in my group stopped talking to me when it happened. I was the only Arab, only Muslim, in the office. It was hurtful; he was also a decent friend. And to their credit, the head of litigation at my firm came to me. He apologized to me on behalf of that associate because he had learned on his own that he, maybe, said some comments. And that associate never spoke to me again after that. It was the only very impactful experience as a Muslim that I have had in my practice.
I’m very sorry you had to go through that. Given these types of experiences, what do you think are the greatest strengths of having an organization like MuBANY?
I think it’s really important for the Muslim community to come together. My sense is that there isn’t a lot of Muslim attorneys overall- we are in the minority. When you start looking at big law- we’re even more in the minority. If you start looking at partners that are Muslim in big law, you are counting them on the fingers of one or two hands. It is very much for that reason, among others that I feel a responsibility as a Muslim woman who is a partner at a big law firm to help and to do whatever I can for the community, to be available for them and to be resource for them, to encourage more of them to follow this path and believe there is room for them in big law and that they can be successful. That is really why I am doing this, and that is why I am involved with MuBANY.
Through your involvement with MBANY, has there been any experience or people that you’ve met that have had an impact on you?
Sure, I will mention a couple of people. Adeel Mangi is a remarkable individual. He is inspiring; he is such a wonderful person and role model for the younger generation. Look at the work he’s done, for instance, the mosque that’s being built in New Jersey. He’s done amazing work for the Muslim community, he’s in fact inspired me to take on some of that work with him, and so we’re now teamed up in some of that legal work on a pro bono basis. I would also mention Saira Hussain, who similarly has this selfless willingness to give her time to the community and to others. I have had the chance to spend some time with her, and I think she is such a great leader for this organization. I am thrilled we have women like her that are generous with their time to be involved and engaged in their community.
How do you think MuBANY has supported its members and engaged in important issues in the community
I think a lot has been done and is being done. I particularly appreciate the efforts to host events for students and younger practitioners to talk about career related discussions, tips to succeeding in the in-house world or in law firms. Any types of informative events for the younger generation are truly invaluable. They may or may not be geared to the Muslim community. It’s just that offering those resources to these younger folks, and giving them an opportunity to talk and ask questions in a safe environment – this is one of the most important issues. I think we also have an obligation to express our views when we feel like we are being misjudged. We have a responsibility to raise awareness about issues impacting the Muslim community. For instance, I was working, for a number of years, on a pro bono matter on the surveillance of Muslims, and sued the NYPD for their surveillance practices. These are the type of important responsibilities we must engage upon. We are the most likely candidates to take on that work and so our mission should include the promotion of such pro bono work as much as possible to help our community and raise awareness and information, and have a voice.
I absolutely agree. This has been such a pleasure speaking with you, and on behalf of MuBANY, we thank you so much for your time and support and inspiration.